How our finance helped this vineyard buy Britain’s biggest, most state-of-the-art hop harvester

From Fruit & Vine magazine, February 2024

IT’S one thing knowing you desperately need to replace your hop-picker. But it’s another thing taking the plunge to make such a major purchase – especially when your money is needed for so many other things.


Sarah Hawkins faced just that challenge. “Our machines had been with us since the 1950s!” she says. “They’d obviously done really well but in the end they were two machines sort of cobbled together and they needed a lot of specialist expertise to run them – fortunately our engineer was a steam engine enthusiast! But we were also finding it more difficult to get parts because they were made in imperial measurements and we had to get them especially made. And of course because of their age, they’d leave a stick or a leaf on the hops. It really was time to get rid of the old machine.”

But Sarah faced the dilemma of all farmers – how to invest affordably in much-needed new equipment while protecting her cash flow?

“Today’s brewers want the cleanest, best quality hops possible and we are competing to provide them against growers from America, Europe and New Zealand. Our hops have to be absolutely perfect to stand out.  But new machines cost money – a lot of money. We did our maths and crunched lots of numbers to justify the purchase and made a lot of trips to Germany to find exactly the right machine. But when we tried to get a grant from Defra we got turned down, mainly I think because no-one knows what a hop is and no-one there understood what we were trying to do. It didn’t fit their criteria with it being robotic – they understood dairy and soft fruit but not hops.”

But Sarah, owner of Herefordshire business Hawkins Farming, found the solution in Fruit & Vine when she read about Rural Asset Finance. Now, thanks to their help, she’s the proud owner of a state-of-the-art hop-harvester Fuß FSH1400 – the German company’s first machine in the UK.

“I’d never heard of Rural Asset Finance,” she says. “I wanted the machine but I’d got extra projects going on as well and I didn’t want to tie up all my working capital. One evening I happened to read about a grower they’d helped to buy equipment, but with a deal that didn’t touch their capital and maintained their cash flow. I thought, ‘Ooh, that’d suit me!’”

Sarah called the number and within a few days was welcoming RAF’s sales director Ben Wood to her Ledbury farm to explain her vision. “He was really friendly but what came across even more was that he really understood how a farm works and why we needed this equipment and the difference it would make to our business. He was really interested in the machine, how it worked and what it would give me. Just from the type of questions he asked, it was immediately obvious that he had a farming background with first-hand knowledge, and knew exactly what he was talking about.”

Sarah’s answers made Ben immediately confident RAF could help. “I was really impressed with Sarah – she’s a true innovator in her field, really knows her business and it’s quite normal for us to supply funding for such high value bespoke agricultural equipment. It is really exciting to help her take things to the next level.”

Ben offered Sarah a bespoke finance package, based on an HP agreement, that was tailored specifically to her exact needs. “Hop harvesting season begins in September,” says Ben, “so I established from Sarah that December payments would suit the business cashflow. For such a diverse farm it is paramount to retain working capital for new opportunities and investments moving forwards.” The agreement was approved by RAF’s inhouse team within just 24 hours of the application going in, meaning the money was in Sarah’s account within days.

“It was obviously sensible to look at banks as well, but their terms weren’t as good, they didn’t seem to ‘get’ what I was doing and they wanted me to jump through so many hoops. With Rural Asset Finance it was so straightforward – I obviously had to give them accounts and other information but it was just all so quick and straightforward. And unlike a bank, I had a direct line – if I had any questions or queries, I’d ring Ben and get straight through to him.”

And what about the machine? “It’s wonderful – it’s completely changed the way we work,” says Sarah. “It’s very compact with wide belts, which is a real plus. There are two arms where the hops get hooked on, which is so simple to do – in the old machine we used to virtually have to tie a knot with every bind. And the binds are then stripped totally and go through a series of cleaners so the hops are perfect, and then the waste bind goes through a chopper at the end.  We used to be left with whole binds that took years to compost but this breaks down in months so gives us value to our waste product.”

It saves money on labour, too. “There’s no-one on the machine apart from two guys at the beginning putting hops in a slot and that’s it. We don’t need to find so much seasonal labour, and because we don’t need people on the machine while it’s running,many of the health and safety issues have gone too.”

Within a few weeks Sarah was proudly inviting Ben back to see the hop harvester in action – and he jumped at the chance. “It’s really exciting to see the difference we’ve made,” he says. “Meetings and follow-up visits are so important to build long-term working relationships with our clients. I look forward to many more visits to see how the farm is growing and assisting in any way I can to make any further funding projects as straightforward and stress-free for Sarah as possible.”

Sarah is already looking to the machine to help her expand the hop crop. “We have only just started,” she says. “We can put a lot more through it than we do. We grow 70 acres at the moment and this machine now gives us the capacity to go up to 100. We’re currently filling existing wirework that’s empty so it would be nice to put up a new yard. We currently transport the picked hops elsewhere so we might now also invest in a hop-drying facility so it’s all in the one place. We’ve got the room – this machine takes up half the space of the old one!

“So we have a lot of ideas about what to do next,” says Sarah, whose farm also makes cider, grows a range of arable crops and manages a herd of pedigree Herefordshire cattle. “We haven’t quite decided what to do next, but I would definitely finance this way again. Ben has been consistently supportive and has been in regular touch asking how it’s all working and how we’re getting on – I think with his farming background, he’s as excited as we are by the difference it’s made!

“It’s good to know that whatever we decide to do next, I know I can just pick up the phone to Ben and start the conversation. I’ll be using Rural Asset Finance again.”


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